Book review: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

THIS one of the most beautifully produced and intriguing works of non-fiction that I’ve read this year. Subtitled “A 21st Century Bestiary”, it is in part a celebration of biological diversity while at the same time being a minatory salvo reminding the reader how precarious that plenitude is.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Caspar Henderson

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Although the medieval bestiary (and its modern equivalent to which Henderson refers in the introduction, Borges’ The Book Of Imaginary Beings) offered such fictitious creatures as the catoblepas, the nas-nas and the inkwell monkey, Henderson’s book takes Hamlet’s line that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy: from the weirdly cute looking axolotl and its ability to regrow entire limbs, to the yeti-crabs that harvest bacteria on their furry claws next to hydro­thermal vents.

It is telling that the greater part of Henderson’s enthusiasms are marine life forms: it’s only logical than the largest environment on the planet would be host to the most diverse species. The chapter on waterbears – a creature the size of a fullstop which has been around since the Cretaceous period – shows how tough life can be: these tiny creatures can survive from almost –278 degrees Celsius to 151 degrees. It makes our own grip on the planet seem rather more tendentious.

Henderson writes beautifully, with apt analogies and brilliantly explanatory metaphors. On the origin of life, he writes of the “primordial soup” zapped by lightning theory, saying “Chicken soup does not give rise to a chicken, however long you cook it”, and turns to the “panspermia” theory that life originated outside of earth in the same vein: “Study of outer space, then, turns up ingredients for a soup but still (or as yet) no chicken.” The text has some words or phrases in red ink, linking to quotations and exemplars in the margin; the photographs of the beings are accompanied by line-drawings that blur the distinction between the real and the imaginary.

That much of what lives alongside us on earth is radically other to us is one of the book’s persisting themes. Even animals we think we know quite well turn out to be fairly staggeringly strange. Dolphins, for example, turn out to be the polymorphous perverse of the seas: “Both males and females have a genital slit, so penetration is possible in both sexes, and the penis, the tip of the nose (the beak), lower jaw, dorsal or pectoral fin, and tail fluke are all used”. I don’t think I’ll be able to watch Free Willy again.

This willingness to admit the weird is paradoxically linked to a number of meditations of animal intelligence. Thomas White is cited as making the claim that dolphins should be considered “non-human persons” and there is ample evidence for advanced kinds of behaviour among octopuses. Do these count as fully fledged intelligences, let alone a sense of personhood which is continuous over time, and which admits the hypothetical as well as the actual? The jury is out.

Personally, crediting animals with intelligence always strikes me as dangerously anthropocentric. It’s intelligence by our standards that we seek, and as Carl Sagan noted, “It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English... no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese”.

The Book Of Barely Imagined Beings is a delight, full of the unusual and the astonishing. Its title is also a challenge: to what extent does our failure to imagine the beings of other species act as a sin of omission, a wilful blindness to the damage we wreak on the ­biosphere? «